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A Boyfriend For Christmas

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Rodney McKay sat on Santa's lap for the first and last time when he was seventeen years old. He was a senior in college, at least a decade too old to be reciting a wish list, and naturally he'd been far too clever at any age to believe in magic sleighs and reindeer. He was only lowering himself to Kris Kringle's level now because of a dare—or possibly a threat. In Rodney's experience, these things could be surprisingly difficult to tell apart.

"Just try not to enjoy this too much," he warned Santa as he settled gingerly onto a red-velvet-covered knee. There was no way a man who'd allow a teenage boy to sit on him was anything less than a pervert, Rodney was convinced.

Brett Hall and his clique of Chi Delta Chi delinquents stood off to the side, watching and snickering.

"Is wittle Roddy ready to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas?" Brett baby-talked, making his dimwitted buddies practically spit with laughter.

Rodney sighed. He really should have known better than to have accepted a ride to the mall. But he'd needed to buy presents for his parents and Jeannie, and Brett had looked so sincere. Come on, Rodney. Just the two of us. The whole afternoon together. Rodney still wasn't sure if it had been a set up from the start or just the worst luck ever, but not five minutes after they started shopping, they'd run into Brett's stupid friends. So much for their afternoon together.

"Do you want a dolly?" one of the buffoons sing-songed at Rodney.

Brett threw his head back, as if it were the funniest thing he'd ever heard. No one witnessing this scene would have believed that a month ago, after one of their tutoring sessions, Brett had leaned across a physics textbook and kissed Rodney. The kissing had led to groping, which led to taking off all their clothes, and culminated in Brett relieving Rodney of his virginity. They'd been having sex regularly ever since. Sometimes even Rodney didn't quite believe it.

"So what would you like Santa to bring you, young man?" the old pervert inquired.

Rodney darted a glance over at Brett, who was still guffawing with the morons. He lowered his voice and dared to ask Santa for what he really wanted, "A boyfriend. He doesn't have to be as smart as me, because who is really, but not some stupid oaf, either. I'd like him to be cute, of course. And he should appreciate what a good catch I am. That's the most important part."

Santa gave him a speculative look. "I'll need some time."

Rodney frowned. Was Santa supposed to negotiate? "How much time?"

"One boyfriend," Santa promised. "Delivered on or before Christmas 2008."

"That's twenty years from now!" Rodney huffed. "What? Are you going to grow him in a lab?"

"You wanted him smart and cute," Santa reminded him. "And the whole thing about appreciating you—"

Rodney sighed. "Fine. Just—see what you can do."

He clamored down from his perch, red-faced and grumpy, and endured much ribbing and hyena laughter until Brett finally decreed that it was time to head back to campus. On the way out to the car, Brett hung back, falling into step with Rodney. He asked in a hush so his friends wouldn't hear, "Was there something you wanted for Christmas? I didn't get you anything yet."

His mouth, always so hard when he was taunting Rodney in front of his fraternity brothers, had gone soft now, the way it looked when he was kissing Rodney's nipples and telling him how much he wanted him.

Rodney sighed. "There is something I want, but I doubt I'm ever going to get it."


Those twenty years had now passed, and in a matter of hours Santa would officially default on his promise. Oh, sure, there had been men in Rodney's life, dumb men who were cute, and smart men who were kind of homely, and occasionally even a guy he'd call a boyfriend, but never the one he'd ordered. It had been an ongoing disappointment, and Rodney knew he had only himself to blame for putting any kind of stock in a promise delivered by a middle-aged guy who liked to dress up in fur.

At least Rodney had his work. Scientists the world over dreamed of exactly one thing, landing a staff position at Pegasus Labs, the R&D arm of Galaxy Corporation. There were no tedious grants to write. No middle managers nitpicking about expenses or demanding justifications for how the work would eventually prove profitable. It was just pure research. Rodney was the envy of everyone in his field.

Bright and early Wednesday morning, he cruised into his VIP parking space right out front of Pegasus' main door. He planned to put in half a day at the office before heading to his sister's for Christmas Eve dinner. He grabbed his coffee, nodded to the guard, and whistled as he strode down the hall to his lab.

His good mood dimmed when he found Radek Zelenka, his research partner, fiddling around on the Internet instead of busily at work on the next, crucial phase of their project. "I thought you were going to start those simulations? Now we're behind schedule!"

Radek shook his head sadly. "What have I told you about ignoring your interoffice mail, Rodney?"

"What does that have to do with why you're trolling the Web for busty Asian beauties instead of working, so I—erm, we can finally collect that Nobel Prize they owe us?"

Radek made an exasperated face and shoved a memo at him.

Rodney scanned the page, his forehead creasing. "Since when does Sheppard Scientific send memos to Pegasus Labs employees?"

"Since they bought Pegasus Labs?"

Rodney stared. "When did that happen?"

"Three months ago. You really should pay more attention."

Rodney threw his hands up. "I'm busy being a genius and making brilliant discoveries. I can't do everything!"

He went back to the memo, his frown deepening with every sentence. It appeared that John Sheppard, recently crowned CEO of Sheppard Scientific upon his father's retirement, had ordered all Pegasus projects to go on a two-week hiatus while he personally reviewed their research objectives and progress reports.

"But I'm this close to a breakthrough!" Rodney shouted, shaking the memo in his fist.

"We," Radek corrected. "We are this close."

Rodney waved his hand dismissively. "You know what I mean. And why are you not more upset? Did you read this thing?" He adopted the appropriately mocking tone as he read aloud, "Hey guys, I know this is an inconvenience, but I promise it's absolutely necessary. So take some extra time at the holidays to spend with your families and recuperate from the eggnog. What? Is he from California or is he just a moron?"

"Rodney, Rodney, calm down," Radek tried to soothe him.

Not that it did any good.

"This is absolutely unacceptable!" Rodney declared, his fury building steam. "We're at a critical phase of our work. We don't have time for interruptions, especially not from some know-nothing corporate raider who probably has more sports cars than IQ points."

"You must not fly off the handle and do something we'll both regret," Radek warned him.

But Rodney was already dialing the number for the Sheppard Scientific corporate offices.

"This is Dr. Rodney McKay. I insist on speaking to John Sheppard immediately," he announced to the receptionist, ready for a fight if she tried to brush him off.

"One moment please," was her courteous reply.

"Hi, this is John Sheppard—" a voice with a vaguely Western twang came over the line.

"Listen, you funding freezing moron, you don't know who you're dealing with here."

"—I can't take your call right now, but leave a message, and I'll get back to you."

"Oh for—" Rodney fought down the urge to hurl the phone across the room while he waited for the beep. "Look, you ignorant clown, unhand my project, so I can finish my very important work. Which, oh yeah, has all kinds of practical applications that will undoubtedly rake in a big pile of money for your company! Or have you given up on making a profit the same way you've apparently given up on using your brain?"

He took a breath and added, "This is Dr. Rodney McKay. I wouldn't want to be confused with the legions of other employees who hate you."

He snapped his phone closed, feeling marginally better.

Radek made a worried face. "I really do not think you should have done that."

Rodney snorted a laugh. "What's he going to do? Fire me?"

His mirth lasted, oh, maybe two seconds before it occurred to him that telling off John Sheppard, as satisfying as it had been, did nothing to solve the problem of what he was supposed to do with himself now that he couldn't work.

As if on cue his phone rang. It was Jeannie. "Hey, what are you doing right now?"

"I, uh—" Rodney fumbled around, trying to think up a convincing excuse, and finally settled for vague bluster, "I'm a very busy man!"

"You're lying," Jeannie's voice sharpened. "I can always tell."

"I don't know what you mean. I'm working on an extremely important project, and we're at a critical stage, and—"

"Our lab is shut down for the next two weeks," Radek called out.

Rodney pivoted sharply, turning the phone away from Zelenka, bringing his hand up to cover the mouthpiece, but the damage had already been done.

"Aha!" Jeannie exclaimed. "Now there's no excuse for you not to go pick out your Christmas tree before you head over here."

"Oh, come on," Rodney whined. "Why do I have to—"

"Because I don't want Scrooge for a brother, Mer." He could practically hear Jeannie pointing her finger. "So you're going to get a tree, and you're going to decorate it, and you're going to like it." She hung up in his ear.

With work put on hold, there really was no good excuse to skip the dreaded trip to the Christmas tree lot, and sometimes it was easier to give in to his sister's unreasonable demands than to try to fight them.

Rodney drove downtown and wandered among the Scotch pines and Douglas firs, looking for as runty a tree as he could find, hoping this would prevent the same catastrophic explosion of pine needles that he was still vacuuming up from last year. By the Norway Spruces, he ran into Santa, who was ringing a bell and collecting money for orphans or puppies or something.

Rodney narrowed his eyes. "You!"

"You." Santa blinked. "Boyfriend. Smart. Cute. Appreciates you. I promised I'd have him for you in—"

"Twenty years! Which is—" Rodney checked his watch. "Oh, yeah. Right now!"

Santa looked sheepish. "I fell down on the job a bit. I admit it."

"A bit!" Rodney crossed his arms over his chest belligerently. "This whole Santa nonsense is just cruel. You really shouldn't go around lying to kids."

Santa stared at him, as if totally flummoxed. "You mean—you don't believe?"

"Uh, duh. I am thirty-seven years old."

"This is not good." Santa shook his head sadly. "Not good at all. I'll have to do something to restore your faith."

"Yeah, yeah." Rodney snapped his fingers at the kid who worked the tree lot. "A little help over here? I don't have all day, and I need this Charlie Brown special delivered to my apartment. I refuse to get sap all over my car like I did last year." When the kid didn't jump right to, he added, "Seriously. Do you have any idea how important I am? Dr. Rodney McKay? You may have heard my name mentioned as a future Nobel Prize candidate."

This last bit caught the attention of another Christmas tree shopper, the very same John Sheppard who had been the object of Rodney's ire only hours earlier. Despite the temporary funding freeze, John really hadn't meant to upset his new employees, especially not so close to the holidays.

He started after Rodney to introduce himself and try to explain, but got waylaid by Santa.

"A moment if I may." Santa gave him a long, assessing glance, and John shifted uncomfortably, wondering if Kris Kringle was maybe a bit of a pervert. "Yes," Santa said at last. "You'll do very nicely."

"Um—I'm just going to—there's someone I need to talk to." He looked around, but there was no sign of Dr. McKay anywhere. Apparently, he'd already paid for his tree and left.

"Looks like we can help each other." Santa's eyes sparkled. "Matty here has Dr. McKay's address." He gestured toward the kid working the lot. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you delivered the tree. Right, Matty?"

"To the mouthy guy?" Matty snorted. "Hey, knock yourself out."

"Give him this. Tell him I sent you." Santa pressed a piece of red construction paper into John's hand. The message on it read: Better late than never. It was spelled out in glitter.

"Uh—okay." The whole thing was odd, but, hey, John was looking for an excuse to talk to McKay. He took charge of the sad little tree.

"Merry Christmas!" Santa called after him. "And enjoy your present," he added with a wink.

Rodney had been pacing and tapping his foot impatiently for at least half an hour before the knock finally came. He threw the door open. "What part of no time to waste do you not understand?" He blinked. Standing there holding his tree was not the pimply faced kid from the lot, but a messy haired Adonis.

"Hey, um, sorry about the delay." The Adonis smiled. "Is it okay if I bring this in now? I'm John by the way."

"Yes, yes, of course." He stepped back to let John pass. "I'm Doctor—uh, Rodney."

"Hey, Rodney, so where do you want it?"

Rodney pointed him to the Christmas tree stand, and John helped him get it anchored.

"Well, uh, thank you," Rodney said when they'd finished. "Let me—" He reached into his pocket for his wallet.

John held up his hand. "No, no, that's not—actually, there's something I need to tell you."

Rodney's phone rang. He checked the number and made an I've got to take this face. "Yeah, Radek, what is it?" He frowned. "No, I haven't heard back from Captain Funding Freeze. He probably doesn't have the courage to call me. The coward. No, we are not getting fired! I'm possibly the most brilliant scientist working in private industry today, and you—well, you're occasionally useful. Look, I can't talk right now. I have—" His gaze flicked over at John. "There's someone here." He hung up. "So, what were you saying?"

"Um," John shifted his weight from foot to foot. "Here. Santa said to give you this and tell you that he was the one who sent me."

Rodney took the glittery piece of paper, frowned at it a minute, and then realization struck. "Oh! I get it. You're my consolation present, because he couldn't get me—" He cleared his throat. "Um, so you're—what? A handyman or something?"

"I, uh, guess you could say I do the occasional odd job."

"Hmm." Rodney looked around the room. "I've got a few things around here that could use—" Then a brainstorm had him snapping his fingers. "I know! How would you feel about pretending to be my boyfriend? Just pretend," he added hastily. "My sister is always giving me a hard time about being single. I'd love to see her face if I brought you to Christmas. You're, uh, not married, are you? Or, you know, about to hit me?"

John rolled his eyes. "I'm not married. Or a jerk. Also, no plans for the holidays. So, sure, I can help you out with your sister. "

Rodney clapped his hands together. "Great! Finally a Christmas when I get to have the last word."

This made John grin. "That's some holiday spirit. So, when do you need me?"

"It's about an hour's drive to Jeannie's, and she said to get there in plenty of time for dinner. Is it okay if we leave in the afternoon? I usually spend the night so I can see my niece open her presents on Christmas morning, but we don't have to—"

"That's fine. I'll pack a bag and pick you up at, say, three."

About five minutes after John had gone, Rodney started to doubt his luck, convincing himself that he'd never see his Santa-sent Adonis again. He grumpily strung lights on his tree and hung ornaments and flung icicles at it. This was going to be another year when Christmas dinner devolved into Jeannie accusing Rodney of being too picky when it came to men and Rodney retaliating by criticizing her cooking.

Happily, though, his bout of pessimism was all for nothing. John reappeared right on schedule, and by five after three, they were on the road.

"I should probably tell you a little something about my family, so it doesn't look like we have communication problems in our non-existent relationship," Rodney started up the conversation in the car. "I mentioned Jeannie. She's obnoxious as little sisters tend to be and has somehow managed to end up a housewife. Oh, she could have had quite the career in research, of course not as eminent as mine, but still. She gave it all up when she married the English major." He sighed. "His name is Caleb. And then there's Madison, who's not bad as kids go."

He glanced over his shoulder at the packages in the back seat. He hoped she liked the present he'd gotten her. Last year's rock polishing kit had been a bit of a bust.

"Oh, and I'm deathly allergic to citrus," Rodney added. "So don't offer me orange juice or anything. It'll look like you're trying to kill me."

"I should probably know something about your work. You're a scientist, right?" John said. "I couldn't help overhearing that things didn't seem to be going too well at work."

"Things were just fine, brilliant even, if I do say so myself, and then some penny-pinching dilettante who only reached the top of the corporate ladder because he was born there bought my company and totally derailed my research."

"Maybe it's just a misunderstanding?" John suggested.

Rodney regarded him indulgently. John was lucky that handymen didn't have to put up with all the Machiavellian corporate shenanigans that gave people ulcers and prematurely receding hairlines.

They made it to Jeannie's in good time. John dropped Rodney off in front of the house before going to look for a parking spot.

"Oh, there's one more thing," Rodney said as he got out of the car. "How do you feel about tofurkey?"

John laughed. "I can't say I've ever had it, but I'm sure it'll be festive."

"It's really not," Rodney said glumly. "Jeannie and Caleb refuse to give up on this vegetarian thing no matter how many times I tell them it's stupid."

He wrangled the packages up to the porch, and when Jeannie answered the door, he shoved them at her. "Guess what else I brought? My new boyfriend. Ha!"

Jeannie looked around, her brow furrowing. "Have you started imagining things, Mer? Do I need to call Dr. Wallace?"

Rodney sputtered, "He's parking the car! I don't need a psychiatrist!"

Jeannie crossed her arms over her chest. "What's his name?"

"John," he shot back indignantly.

"What does he do?"

"He's—" Rodney fumbled around for a noble lie. "A fireman! He saves lives, and he's very good looking."

"How'd you meet him?" Jeannie continued stubbornly.

Happily, John came loping up the front walk then, interrupting the inquisition. "Hey." He smiled and leaned in to kiss Rodney.

Rodney hadn't expected the pretending to be quite so realistic, and he stood there a bit dazed, resisting the urge to touch his fingers to his lips.

John smiled and held out his hand to Jeannie. "John Sh—uh, Sherman. Good to meet you. Rodney's told me so much about you."

Jeannie raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Really?" Then she remembered her manners. "Please. Come on in."

John had always been a seat-of-the-pants kind of decision-maker. You didn't stay at the front of the pack in the technology industry by playing it safe. He believed in taking chances the way other people believed in God or never paying retail prices. His gut hadn't led him astray yet, and so when Rodney proposed this seemingly harmless little charade, he went with it. A little something I can do to make it up to him, he thought. As soon as the visit's over, I'll tell him the truth.

He followed Rodney and his sister into the living room, where they joined a man with shaggy brown hair and a cute little girl of around eight, presumably the English major and Madison.

"Hey guys, this is John," Jeannie introduced him. "Rodney's new boyfriend."

He was met with stares of incredulity and hid a smile as Rodney started to bluster, "Oh, very nice! Thank you. I appreciate the slack-jawed disbelief that I might actually be seeing someone."

"Now, Meredith," Jeannie chided.

"Is that a family nickname?" John asked Rodney.

"No," Jeannie said. "It's the name he was born with."

Rodney looked imploringly to John. "Please just ignore her."

John smiled, doing his best imitation of Switzerland.

"Make yourself at home." Jeannie pointedly addressed herself only to John. "Glass of wine? Dinner should be ready soon. Caleb, could you help me set the table?"

John settled onto the sofa. The living room had the gently lived in look of a home with children. There were baskets with toys sitting around, drawings tacked up on the wall, a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich wrapped in a paper towel abandoned on the end table.

Madison waylaid Rodney. "Come look at my science project." She pulled him by the arm over to a child-sized table in the corner, made him sit down on one of the diminutive chairs and plunked down on his lap, despite his obvious dismay. "See? Here's my display." A yellow piece of poster board was laid out across the table.

Rodney perused it, his expression just as serious as if he were reviewing a journal article. "Well," he said grudgingly, "it's not entirely inaccurate."

Apparently this was high praise by McKay standards, because Madison's face lit up. "Thanks, Uncle Rodney!"

"Yes, well," he said gruffly, giving her an awkward one-armed hug. "I suppose you did a pretty good job."

Rodney glanced up and caught John watching them. His face twisted into an indignant expression that John interpreted to mean: No, I am not secretly a marshmallow, thank you very much. John couldn't help laughing. Rodney didn't look away immediately, and John took a moment to appreciate how blue his eyes were, hot blue, not cool, sharply intelligent. Rodney was strangely attractive for someone who'd called John an ignorant clown.

Not that this was something he should be thinking about one of his employees—particularly when Rodney didn't even know who he was.

Jeannie appeared in the doorway. "Dinner's on."

They assembled at the table and started passing bowls and platters.

Rodney took a slice of tofurkey, his mouth pulling into a grimace. "You should tell your mother you want to know what real turkey tastes like," he whispered to Madison.

"Meredith." Jeannie pointed her fork at him sternly.

Rodney sighed. "Oh, all right, fine. Deprive her if you really must."

"Everything looks really good," John proclaimed, feeling like somebody ought to say it.

"Brownnoser," Rodney said under his breath.

"So," Jeannie turned to John with a smile, "tell us about your job. It must be exciting."

"Oh, no." Rodney glared at her. "Do not start grilling him."

Jeannie insisted, "I'm just asking him about his work, Mer. I don't think that qualifies as the inquisition."

"I told you already. He's a fireman, remember?" Rodney said.

At the same time, John declared, "Being a pilot is pretty cool."

Caleb and Jeannie directed matching looks of confusion at them.

"He's—a pilot and a fireman," Rodney said slowly.

"Forest fires," John came to the rescue. "You know how they drop water on—"

Jeannie nodded. "Oh, yeah. Yeah. You do that?" Her expression filled with admiration.

"Yep," John lied through his teeth. "That's me."

"I told you he was very brave," Rodney needled his sister. "And well—the other thing, too."

John wasn't sure, but he thought Rodney was blushing.

He raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"Nothing," Rodney said firmly. "You'll just get a big ego."

This from the man who regularly declared himself a genius. John had to grin. He would not have guessed from Rodney's ranting phone message that his bluster could be so entertaining in person.

Happily, they made it through the rest of dinner without any further slipups. John steered the conversation away from himself, a skill he'd spent a lifetime perfecting. Caleb told horror stories about trying to teach The Great Gatsby to college freshmen. Rodney, to his credit, didn't roll his eyes even once. Jeannie filled them in on a new charity project she'd volunteered for, delivering meals to the elderly at Christmas. She'd pitched in with the cooking, and tomorrow other volunteers would be making the rounds.

"That's a really great thing to do," John said.

"I'm glad someone thinks so." She shot a nasty look at Rodney,

"What?" he demanded. "I'm not against old people being fed!"

After they finished their meal, they helped clear the table and clean up the kitchen. Then they carried their dessert and coffee and wine into the living room. Madison bounced on her toes. "Let's watch my movie!"

Rodney groaned, "Not again."

Jeannie waited until Madison wasn't looking and then smacked him on the arm.

"Ow!" Rodney huffed. "How many times do I have to suffer through It's A Wonderful Life anyway?"

"At least once more," Jeannie informed him.

Caleb popped in the DVD, and they all settled down to watch. John figured it was time for another display of boyfriendly affection, so he slipped his arm around Rodney. It made Rodney go instantly tense, hardly the effect John had been going for. He tried, rather awkwardly, to remove his arm without being too obvious about it.

No such luck, though. Jeannie was eyeing them with an expression that was either suspicion or curiosity or some mix of the two. This seemed to spark in Rodney a renewed determination to act lovey-dovey. He relaxed against John's side, even went so far as to rest his head on John's shoulder.

The least John could do was play along. He stroked his hand idly up and down Rodney's arm, dropped the occasional kiss to his hair. He couldn't help noticing that Rodney smelled nice, and it felt good to hold someone again, even if it was only pretend. He'd been putting in eighty-hour weeks for months and months preparing to take over the company from his father. It hadn't left much time for anything else. Not that his personal life had been particularly action-packed before that.

The movie built to its crescendo, George Bailey redeemed by his family and friends.

"Oh, please," Rodney said under his breath. "Like he wouldn't actually end up in jail. At the very least, people would pretend not to see him when they ran into him at the grocery store."

Madison, it appeared, was not of the same opinion. "Can we watch it again?" She made big please, oh please eyes.

Jeannie tilted her head in a motherly way. "It's already past your bedtime, honey."

There was some more back-and-forth, but it was clear who was going to win the battle. "We've got to give Santa time to do his work. You do want to wake up to presents, don't you?"

This did the trick. Madison practically sprinted up the stairs. Jeannie and Caleb went to tuck her in, and when they returned, they opened another bottle of wine. The gas fireplace gave off a cheerful glow, and they'd all had enough to drink that lazing companionably in the warmth felt perfectly entertaining.

Nothing could be more different than holidays at the Sheppard household. John had grown up feeling as if Christmas was just another business function. Nowadays, even when it was only the family, John's father talked more about how Sheppard Scientific could leverage its research investment to attain a greater market share than anything personal. John's mother spent the occasion fretting that John still wasn't married and she was never going to be a grandmother.

Christmas with Rodney was so much better than that, John thought. This gave him a warm feeling, and it just seemed natural to lean in a little, brush his mouth over Rodney's. Rodney made a small, startled noise, his breath warm against John's mouth, and then it seemed just as natural to part Rodney's lips with his own and stroke their tongues together.

Rodney blinked owlishly when John pulled away,

Jeannie cleared her throat. "Maybe we should think about turning in?"

"If we get to sleep past dawn, we'll be lucky," Caleb told them ruefully. "Last Christmas, Madison woke up at four."

"I put clean sheets on the bed in the guest room and towels in the bathroom," Jeannie told them.

John rested his hand on the small of Rodney's back as they headed up the stairs. He really was quite good at pretending to be Rodney's boyfriend. Rodney thought about how he'd tangled up his hands in John's shirt when they'd kissed, just wanting to hang on. Maybe John was a little too good at it.

They carried their stuff into the spare room, and Rodney was reminded that he hadn't really thought out the logistics too well. There was just the one, not overly roomy double bed.

"I'll take the floor," Rodney promptly volunteered. "Although my back—I suppose I won't end up actually paralyzed. Well, probably."

"Rodney—"

"I'm not expecting you to put out, okay?" Rodney blurted out. "You're my consolation present, not actually my—and it's not as if you're a hooker or something." He paused, thinking about how natural John was at faking intimacy "You're not, are you?"

John gave him a hard look.

"Right, right," Rodney said nervously. "Like I was saying—"

"Relax, okay? Why don't we just get ready for bed?"

"Right. Relax." Rodney took a breath. "I can do that."

He rummaged around in his bag for his toothbrush, and when he couldn't lay his hands on it, started taking things out, tossing them onto the bed, his notebook included.

John plopped down and began nosily turning pages. "Yang-Mills theory, huh? You're working on a millennium problem?"

"It's a hobby—hey!" Rodney stared at him, torn between accusation and amazement. "You know math."

John's eyes went bright with amusement. "It does come in handy when you're flying helicopters."

Rodney blinked at him. "Wait. You're really a pilot?"

John nodded. "Retired Air Force."

"Where did you go to school?"

"Berkley undergrad. Did my masters at Purdue."

"In what?"

"Aeronautical engineering."

"Then why in the world are you working as a handyman?"

John half smiled. "I guess the inquisition thing runs in the family, huh?"

"Sorry," Rodney said, without any particular remorse. "And, you know, about the hooker crack." This was more sincere.

John laughed softly, looking up at him with what Rodney might have called fondness if they'd known each other longer than a day. "You're not what I was expecting, you know that?"

Rodney looked away. "Funny. You're exactly what I was expecting. Just a little past due."

"Hey." John caught Rodney by the wrist and pulled him onto the bed next to him. "I'm here now."

Rodney held his breath. "You don't have to."

"Yeah. We already covered that. If you don't actually want me to kiss you, this would be a good time to tell me."

"I'm, uh, okay with it." Rodney fidgeted nervously.

"You sure?" John was grinning and moving closer, and Rodney closed his eyes.

John's lips brushed against his, a soft little tease. Rodney made a mewling noise that roughly translated, come on, come on, kiss me already. He felt John's smile, and then John took Rodney's bottom lip between his, worrying it. Rodney moaned and raised his hands to John's hair, stroked his fingers through it. John traced the line between Rodney's lips with his tongue, and Rodney opened up to him eagerly.

Usually, Rodney found, kissing someone new involved a certain amount of trial and error—and in some unfortunate instances, humiliation and bloody lips. But there was no awkwardness with John, no hesitation. Each touch of their lips led easily, naturally to the next, as if they'd been kissing each other forever. Rodney stroked his thumb along John's jaw. John murmured into his mouth, wordless and encouraging sounds. He pressed closer, and Rodney wrapped his arms around John's back, feeling warm skin beneath the cotton T-shirt.

"Mmm." John shifted his weight and pushed Rodney back onto the bed, stretching out beside him.

Rodney agreed with this development whole-heartedly. He tugged at John's shoulders, pulling him on top of him. John kissed his neck, licked and sucked a spot just under his jaw, probably leaving a mark. The small part of Rodney's brain that wasn't busily celebrating sex, oh my God, sex took a moment to imagine the stares at breakfast the next morning when everyone got a load of his hickey. He decided he really didn't care.

Rodney rubbed his hands up and down John's arms, appreciating the flex and play of muscle, and then ran them around to his back and down his sides. He cupped John's ass and pulled him closer, closer. God, he really needed him closer.

"Good idea," John said, huffing a breath against Rodney's neck.

He began to push his hips into Rodney's. Rodney could feel John's cock, hot and hard, against his thigh. He shifted his body just a little, and there, oh God yes. Their cocks slid together with every thrust. The sensation was making Rodney's fingers curl into the bedspread, and they hadn't even gotten naked yet.

"I want—" he started breathlessly.

"Yeah. Yeah," Sheppard said, as if he could read Rodney's mind.

Which apparently he could. He cupped Rodney's jaw in his hand and kissed him deeply and began to move more urgently. And—

The bed let out such a startling squeak, the kind of telltale noise that loudly declared hey, two people totally having sex here. Rodney and John leaped apart, staring at each other with wide eyes, as if they were teenagers afraid somebody's parents were going to catch them in the act.

John ran a hand through his hair. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all."

Rodney pulled anxiously at his arm. "But it is! It's the best idea anyone has ever had." Then he hesitated. "I mean, unless you don't really want—"

John pressed a quick, hard kiss to his mouth. "Oh, I really do. It's just—you don't know anything about me, and there are things you should—"

"Oh, no," Rodney cut him off. "Absolutely not. No confessions. It's Christmas."

He wasn't sure this entirely made sense, but happily, it appeared that John was easy. He hesitated only a moment and then scooted back over next to Rodney. There was an awkward moment when John didn't quite seem to know how to start back up again, and then he leaned over for another kiss.

Rodney reached beneath John's t-shirt, laying his palm flat against John's side. His skin was soft and, God, so warm. Rodney was desperate for more of it.

He tugged at John's t-shirt. "Can you—I want—"

John jerked the shirt up over his head and dropped it on the floor. "You too."

"Yeah, yeah." Rodney scrambled out of his multiple layers.

John peppered kisses across Rodney's chest, his breath whispering over Rodney's skin.

Rodney's nipples tightened, and he begged, "Please!"

John smiled. "Yeah?"

Rodney dug his fingers into John's biceps, because a question as stupid as that didn't deserve more of an answer. John laughed softly and bent his head and dragged his tongue across Rodney's nipple.

"God!" Rodney moaned, entirely too loudly for someone trying to have clandestine sex in his sister's guest bedroom.

John began to really apply himself, sucking and using his teeth and basically driving Rodney out of his mind. Rodney ran his hands up John's back, his fingers catching on bare skin. He pushed up into John's body, into his hands and his mouth. Their thighs slid together and then their cocks, making John groan out loud.

"Still. Not. Naked enough," Rodney panted.

John pulled away, grinning. "I like the way you think."

They shucked their pants and boxers, and Rodney pulled John back down on top of him. John's erection brushed slickly against his thigh, and the muscles in Rodney's belly tightened. Rodney felt swelteringly hot everywhere John touched him. He hooked his leg around John's waist and pushed his hips into John's. It was more desperate than suave, and the sex was probably going to be over embarrassingly quickly. There was just something about John that brought out the horny teenager in him.

The best part was: Rodney didn't appear to be alone in this.

John surged against him, rubbing their cocks together. "Rodney." His voice was strained, his eyes wide, pupils blown.

"Yeah," Rodney encouraged him. "Yeah."

He clutched at John's shoulders, pushing up to meet him. The bed groaned violently, and Rodney couldn't care less. He kissed John frantically and murmured his name and squeezed his eyes tightly closed when he came.

"Rodney, Rodney," John chanted, and then there was more warm-wet spreading between their bodies.

He slumped on top of Rodney for a moment, breathing hotly against the side of his face, and then rolled off him.

"Wow," he said, sounding almost dazed, brushing the sweaty bangs back from his forehead.

Rodney totally agreed. He just didn't have the breath to say so.

John leaned over and kissed him. "Be right back."

He pushed himself up from bed, padded off to the adjoining bathroom and came back a few seconds later with a wet washcloth. He swiped it over Rodney's belly. The cloth was warm and nubby, and John lingered. If Rodney were a few years younger, he would have been contemplating round two about then.

John smiled. "In the morning."

He took the washcloth back to the bathroom, slipped into bed, and slid his arm around Rodney's shoulders. Rodney curled closer, and John pressed a kiss to the top of his head. Usually the men Rodney had sex with either left before the afterglow had a chance to set in or made him sleep in the wet spot. He closed his eyes, and as he was drifting off, he had the fuzzy thought that maybe he believed in Santa Claus, just a little bit, after all.

Morning came much, much too early, ushered in by a very excited Madison running down the hall, calling out at the top of her little girl lungs, "Santa came, Santa came!"

John liked to think he had as much Christmas spirit as the next person, but it was hard to find anything to celebrate when dawn was still hours away. He groaned pitifully into his pillow. Beside him, Rodney made a similarly unhappy noise. He kissed John's shoulder, his breath warm on John's skin, making him shiver. John sleepily began to consider the possibility of a round two.

"Maybe later," Rodney said, apparently reading John's mind. "Go back to sleep now."

Truly, Rodney was full of brilliant ideas.

When John woke up again, he was alone in bed. He pulled on sweats and a T-shirt and padded downstairs. There was an explosion of torn Christmas paper in the living room, abandoned. John continued on into the kitchen and found Jeannie there.

"Morning," she said, smiling. "Coffee?"

He nodded, and she poured him a cup.

"Madison got a new bike for Christmas. She dragged Rodney and her dad outside to watch her ride it." Her smile was indulgently fond. "We'll have breakfast as soon as they come back inside." Jeannie poured more coffee for herself and nodded to the table for John to sit. "Until then, I thought we could get to know each other better."

Jeannie was smiling pleasantly, but John had seen enough of her in action to know she was nobody to mess with. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Who knew what other things Rodney might have made up about their "relationship"? John sensed a repeat of the fireman-pilot snafu in the making.

"So, how long have you and Mer known each other?" she asked, taking a sip of her coffee.

John shook his head. "Not that long."

"Mmm," Jeannie said. "I had a feeling."

John took a healthy slug of coffee, so he'd have an excuse not to say anything for a second or two.

"I can tell he really likes you," Jeannie continued.

She fixed a questioning look on him. John wasn't sure he'd ever been asked his intentions quite so plainly before, not even from Heather Miller's father, the girl he'd dated back in high school, and Heather Miller's father had been a Marine sergeant.

"I, uh—" John stammered.

Jeannie studied him and then smiled knowingly. "Mmm-hmm. That's what I thought."

John hadn't even admitted anything, and he still had a forget-fight-it's-all-about-the-flight reaction to the conversation. There was no point in thinking about where any of this might be going, not when Rodney didn't even know who he was. Yeah, maybe something you should have mentioned before you slept with him, the practical part of his brain piped up. How do you think he's going to take it when you finally come clean? He decided to ignore the question. Once they got back home, he'd find a way to make Rodney understand, because…well, he had to.

The front door banged shut, and there was the thumping of boots on the hardwood floor.

"Anyone who tracks in mud cleans it up!" Jeannie called out.

The thumping stopped, and John grinned at the sound of boots being kicked off. "You've got them well-trained."

"It's a work in progress," Jeannie said, smiling over her coffee cup.

Rodney trudged into the kitchen, in his sock feet, still wearing his puffy jacket, red-faced from the weather. "Happy now, housekeeping Nazi?"

"Congratulations," Jeannie told him. "I'm not going to have to send you to your room without breakfast."

Rodney made a face at her. Jeannie made a face back.

John wondered if things in his own family might have been less stuffy if he hadn't been an only child.

He went to give Rodney a kiss. "How was the bike riding?"

"Frigid," Rodney said, shivering.

John rubbed his hands up and down Rodney's arms to warm him up. Rodney relaxed against him, and they kissed again. This was, by far, the weirdest way John had ever hooked with anyone, and yet there was none of the usual morning-after awkwardness.

Whey they pulled away from one another, Jeannie was beaming at them with sisterly benevolence.

"Could you please stop cheerleading?" Rodney grumbled at her. "I'm not utterly hopeless, you know. You act like I've never kissed anyone before."

"Of course you have. There was that girl when you were in the sixth grade."

Rodney glared. Jeannie smiled sweetly.

"Mom, mom!" Madison came running into the kitchen and threw her arms around Jeannie. "My bike is so fast! And I can ride it really good. Even Uncle Rodney said so. He was chasing after me, and he totally couldn't catch me."

"I was humoring you!" Rodney insisted defensively.

Madison rolled her eyes. "Sure you were, Uncle Rodney."

Rodney turned to John and demanded, "Who are you going to believe? Me? Or her?"

John patted him on the shoulder.

Madison bounced over to John. "My bike is silver, and it has streamers on the handlebars, and my helmet is silver to match. You have to come see, Uncle John." She tugged at his arm.

He blinked down at her. Uncle John? He waited for the freakout to set in, but…nothing. This was odd, to say the least. He'd once nearly had a nervous breakdown when Amanda, his girlfriend of four years, had sent him a Father's Day card signed from her two cats. And that had totally been a joke.

"No more bike until after breakfast," Jeannie told Madison.

"Awww, but Mom," Madison started to protest.

Jeannie swept Madison up into her arms for a hug. "Can you help me set the table?"

"O-kay," Madison said with a dramatic sigh and scooted over to the cabinet.

John leaned in to Rodney for another kiss. "Coffee?"

Rodney's eyes lit up. "You have no idea how much."

John grinned and moved over the counter to pour him a cup.

Caleb came to help Madison with the table setting. Jeannie pulled the breakfast casserole she'd made out of the oven, and they sat down to eat. Madison chattered away excitedly about what Santa had brought her.

"And I got all these games. Even Battleship! I wanted that so much."

"That was me," Rodney said proudly. "I got her the games."

Madison turned a commandeering look on John and Rodney. "You guys have to come play my new games with me. I'm really good, so don't take it too hard when you lose."

John covered his laugh with a cough. Okay, so Madison definitely had some of her uncle in her.

"I don't know what time you guys were planning to head back," Jeannie said. "But some of the members of my volunteer group are probably going to stop by later for lunch after they finish making deliveries. It's just going to be leftovers, but you're welcome to stay."

"Oh, joy," Rodney said dryly. "Day-old tofurkey."

Jeannie glared. John got very interested in his breakfast casserole. Across the table, Caleb seemed to be doing the same thing.

Rodney cleared his throat. "So, Madison, why don't you tell us more about your bike?"

After breakfast, John went upstairs to take a shower. When he came back down, Madison and Rodney were standing by the door. They had their gloves on and their parkas all zipped up.

Madison put her hands on her hips. "What took you so long, Uncle John?"

"Um—I didn't know you were—"

She grabbed his hand and dragged him over to the closet to get his coat. "My bike! You promised you'd come see it."

Rodney shrugged. "She's a Yuletide slave driver."

They headed on outside. John threw on his coat and followed. Madison scrambled onto her bike and took off.

Rodney ran after her. "Not without your helmet! Bicycle riding is the fourth leading cause of head injuries among children aged six to nine, and your brain isn't completely useless."

Madison put on the brakes. Rodney strapped the helmet on her, brushing her hair back over her shoulders.

Madison squirmed impatiently. "Can I go now, Uncle Rodney?"

Rodney sighed. "Yes, yes, by all means. Have at it."

Madison set off down the street. Rodney kept a careful eye on the traffic, as if searching for maniac drivers who might jump the curb. John suspected he was also mentally preparing a diatribe about idiots who didn't belong behind the wheel, just in case it came to that.

"You really are secretly a marshmallow, aren't you?" John said with a smile.

Rodney snorted. "Insulting me is hardly in the Christmas spirit."

John wrapped an arm across Rodney's chest. "You so totally are."

Rodney twisted around until they were facing, clearly ready to argue the point. John kissed him before he could get started.

Madison raced back down the sidewalk and stopped her bike in front of them. "You guys do that a lot. The kissing thing, I mean."

Rodney raised an eyebrow at her. "A lot? What have I told you about imprecise measures?"

"That it's a sign of sloppy thinking," Madison repeated by rote. Clearly, they'd had this conversation more than once. "Are you and Uncle John going to get married?"

Rodney shot an alarmed look at John and hastily started to babble, "Ignore her! She's only a child, and half her DNA comes from an English major. So obviously there are no guarantees about her intelligence."

John could have pointed out that they didn't actually have gay marriage in their state. But where was the fun in that? "You're cute when you're freaking out, you know that?" he teased.

Rodney puffed up indignantly. "I'll have you know—"

John grinned harder and pulled him into a kiss.

"That's five times you've kissed since this morning," Madison observed.

Rodney gave her a dirty look.

She shrugged. "You said I should be more precise."

"She does have you there," John agreed.

"Whose side are you on?" Rodney demanded.

John laughed. "Hey, Madison, why don't you give your Uncle Rodney another chance to out-race you?"

"Oh, I really don't think—" Rodney started to say.

But he was drowned out by Madison's high-pitched enthusiasm. "Oh, yeah! Come on, Uncle Rodney. I'll race you to the maple tree!"

She started off, a little wobbly at first, but quickly gaining steam.

John nodded toward the maple tree. "You'd better get going."

"I hate you," Rodney said darkly as he started to run, huffing and puffing in a put upon fashion.

"No, you don't," John called after him.

By the time they went inside an hour later, they were all shivering, and Rodney was complaining rather loudly about the irreversible damage done to his back. John sent him off for more coffee, figuring caffeine was a miracle cure for spinal misalignment in the world of Rodney McKay. He gave into Madison's insistent demands that he come play Battleship with her.

"I got her that," Rodney called out from the kitchen.

Madison stage whispered to John, "He's just really glad he got me something better than that rock polishing kit from last year."

"I heard that!"

John grinned.

He and Madison settled down to play. Apparently, she hadn't just been trash talking over breakfast.

"Told you so," she said after she'd beaten the crap out of him, grinning, showing off her missing tooth.

And, okay, so it was just a board game, and the kid was eight years old. But John hadn't become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company without developing a competitive streak.

"Best two out of three," he challenged her.

"Okay," Madison said, with a sad shake of her head, "but it's not going to be any different."

This proved prescient. Two games later, John had only managed to humiliate himself further.

He hunkered down. "Best of five."

"You're not going to win," Madison told him.

"I don't remember the last time I saw such a pathetic string of defeats," Rodney chimed in oh, so helpfully. He'd come in sometime during the second game and was sprawled on the couch cradling such an enormous cup of coffee it could rightly be called a vat.

"Oh, yeah? Well, I don't see you volunteering to give it a shot."

"I, uh—" Rodney got a shifty-eyed look. "My back."

"Mmm-hmm," John said skeptically.

"I can produce a note from my orthopedist!" Rodney insisted.

"That's okay, Uncle Rodney," Madison assured him sweetly. "I still like you even if you are a fraidy cat."

John grinned. Rodney glared at him.

"Oh, hey. I know." Madison perked up. "We could watch my movie again."

Rodney groaned. "There has to be something more interesting on TV. Like the channel where you watch paint dry."

"Hey, we could always watch football," John suggested with a waggle of his eyebrows.

"Suddenly the movie sounds fascinating," Rodney deadpanned.

Fate—in the form of Jeannie rounding them up to help with lunch—intervened, saving Rodney from both the "stupidity of American sports" as he put it and a reprise of "It's A Wonderful Life."

"I'll race you, Uncle Rodney," Madison declared and scrambled off toward the kitchen.

"That is so not fair!" Rodney chased after her. "You got a head start."

"No running in the house," Jeanne called out from the kitchen. "Meredith, stop being a bad influence."

There was a knock at the door, and since John was closest, he called out, "I'll get it."

He opened the door. A tall, broad-shouldered man in a heavy parka stood on the front porch.

The guy peered at John, rather confused. "I, uh—is this Jeannie Miller's house?"

John nodded and stepped back to let him in. "You must be one of the volunteers in her group. I'm John Sh—uh, Sherman. A friend of—" He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of Rodney.

"Brett Hall," the guy told him.

"Come on." John nodded his head toward the kitchen. "They're back here."

Jeannie looked up from the fruit she was cutting. "Brett! I'm so glad you could stop by." She wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and went to give him a hug. "Merry Christmas."

"You too, Jeannie," he said, sounding almost bashful.

John had to wonder if maybe Brett had a little bit of a crush on Rodney's sister.

"You remember Caleb," Jeannie started the introductions. "And Madison. You met John already. And this is—" She looked around, but there was no sign of Rodney. "Apparently my brother has once again managed to disappear when there's work to be done." She shook her head. "Anyway. How'd it go this morning?"

Brett grinned. "Fine, fine. You know, other than Mrs. Lapinski pinching me on the butt when I wasn't looking."

Jeannie laughed. "Yeah, I've heard she has a thing for younger men and can move pretty fast for someone with a walker."

Rodney's voice rang out, "Is it time to eat yet?"

He came striding into the kitchen, caught sight of Brett, and stopped in his tracks.

"There you are," Jeannie managed to make it sound like an accusation. "This is Brett Hall. He's part of my volunteer group—"

"We've met," Rodney said curtly.

Jeannie's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

"Rodney and I went to college together," Brett explained. "I didn't realize he was your brother."

It was pretty obviously a lie, and that pink-cheeked, too-conscious look had crept back into Brett's expression. John had a sudden, very unwelcome realization. This guy didn't have a crush on Jeannie; he had a crush on Jeannie's brother.

From the tense set of Rodney's shoulders, the feeling didn't appear to be mutual. John took a step closer to him, then another, until their arms were brushing.

"So—" Brett beamed stupidly at Rodney. "How have you been?"

Rodney's mouth pulled into a thin line that was maybe supposed to be a smile, but didn't quite achieve it. "Much better now that I'm all grown up."

Brett's gaze dropped down to his shoes. So, they hadn't just gone to college together. Something had happened between them, and it was pretty clear that Brett had been an asshole about it. John slid an arm around Rodney's shoulders. He tried to tell himself that it was a comforting thing, not a possessive thing.

"Hey," he said, trying to get Rodney to relax a little. "I thought you said everything was better since you met me."

The look Rodney shot John was pathetically grateful, even as he quipped, "Yeah, well, I try not to repeat it too much. You'll just get a swelled head."

John smiled and kissed him softly. Brett's face went blank, his eyes as hard as agates. It was the kind of look John recognized from the battlefield and the boardroom. Apparently, this was war.

"Everybody grab a plate and dig in," Jeannie invited them.

The food was set out on the counter, and they fell into single file, helping themselves as they went along. Brett made a beeline to sit next to Rodney at the table. John, not to be outdone, plunked down on the other side.

"Oh, Rodney. You didn't get any cranberry sauce," Brett fawned over Rodney officiously. "Let me—" He started to get up.

"It has orange zest in it," John pointed out. "So unless you want this to be Rodney's last Christmas, he should probably skip it."

Rodney darted a glance at him, a soft expression in his eyes. "You remembered."

John bumped shoulders with him. "I try not to forget the things that could make my boyfriend drop dead."

Brett scowled at John. "I would have remembered! I just—it's been a long time."

"Meredith doesn't like cranberries anyway," Jeannie said a little defensively. "I wasn't trying to kill you."

Rodney pointed his fork at her. "Right. Just like you weren't trying to kill me that time you gave me Pepsi mixed with lemonade."

"I was seven! I didn't know you were going to go into anaphylactic shock. I didn't even know what anaphylactic shock was."

The usual sibling bickering actually helped defuse the tension in the air. Rodney still stayed tucked tightly against John's side, though, as far away from Brett as he could get, for the duration of the meal.

After they'd eaten, Brett made a big show of doing the dishes. "It's the least I can do," he told Jeannie, plastering on an ingratiating smile. Apparently, he thought he could worm his way into Rodney's good graces through his sister.

Suck up, John thought sourly.

Once the kitchen was straightened up, they all filed into the living room, and the atmosphere went from slightly strained to downright uncomfortable. Rodney grabbed John's hand and pulled him down onto the sofa beside him. Brett, not to be foiled so easily, made a mad dash for the armchair next to the sofa and angled it so his knees were practically brushing Rodney's. Jeannie and Caleb exchanged confused glances. Madison had a sort of resigned look on her face that John interpreted to mean, Grownups are so weird.

The six of them sat there silently eyeing one another for what felt like the rest of time, waiting for someone to say something. John had suffered through more than his fair share of awkward social occasions—his high school prom when his date threw up on him and work functions where half the people in the room were plotting each other's downfall and the year his mother decided that all she wanted for Mother's Day was for John and his father to spend some quality time together—and this right now was making even John wish he were somewhere else.

It was Rodney who finally broke the increasingly mortifying silence. "So, Brett, don't let us hold you up. I'm sure you must be busy, busy. Big day and all. Feel free to go on home any time now." His mouth pulled into a flat smile.

Brett mulishly shook his head. "I don't have any family I need to rush off to. Actually, there hasn't been anybody special since—"

The adoring look he gave Rodney had something of a bovine quality to it, John thought meanly.

Rodney turned to John frantically, his voice coming out a nervous squawk, "Hey, didn't you want to watch the game?"

"I, uh—sure."

Rodney scrambled for the remote and flipped on the TV. Everybody looked relieved, including Jeannie who John would bet anything usually banned football from the house. Rodney fumbled with the buttons,

"That's for the DVD player," Madison pointed out.

"I know that!" Rodney insisted huffily, reaching for another remote.

He pushed various combinations of things, and still nothing happened.

"I can do it for you," Madison offered.

"I'm perfectly capable of—" Rodney's bluster ended in a sigh. "Fine." He handed over the remotes.

Madison did something, and then something else, and then there was television.

"I didn't think the time when I'd be technologically upstaged by an eight-year-old would come so soon," Rodney complained.

John patted his leg.

Madison started flipping channels. "Where's the game?"

She blipped past a business program, and John remembered belatedly, with an unhappy jolt, that his assistant had mentioned something about a re-run of an interview he'd done. In case he'd forgotten to DVR it the first time, she'd joked.

John made a lunge for the remote, a little grabby in his panic. "Let me find it for you, Madison."

"Wait." Madison flipped back to that channel, leaning in closer to the screen. "Is that you, Uncle John?"

John was all set to babble away about how so many guys in the world looked like him when the program's host colluded against him, "Today we have with us John Sheppard, newly named CEO of Sheppard Scientific…"

Brett blinked, looking mole-like in his bewilderment. "I thought you said your name was John Sherman."

Madison announced excitedly in her big, bell of a voice, "Hey, Mom, Dad, look. It's Uncle John on TV."

John chanced a sideways glance at Rodney. He was staring at John open-mouthed, as if he'd been struck speechless. If the way his eyes were darkening was any indication, though, shock was about to transform into some really loud yelling. And possibly an attempted homicide.

"I can explain," John said, desperately trying to head off Rodney's freakout.

Brett unhelpfully interjected, "Did this guy do something, Rodney? Because I can take care of it if he did."

He sounded like a reject from The Sopranos. John had to fight hard not to punch him in his big, stupid mouth.

Rodney snapped at Brett, "This is none of your business. And if you're going to beat up boyfriends who dicked me over, you can start with yourself." John's smug smile of triumph was short-circuited by Rodney grabbing his sleeve and saying in a tight, tense voice, "I need to speak to you in private."

He dragged John upstairs to the guest bedroom and shut the door behind them.

"Look, I was going to tell you just as soon as we got back—" John began.

Rodney drowned him out, "Is this payback for that phone message? Because you totally deserved to be called an ignorant clown for freezing our project like that."

"Temporarily!" John sputtered. "And no, Jesus, of course it wasn't—" Were gifted research scientists supposed to jump to completely ridiculous conclusions this way? "I wanted to make it up to you. And then I saw you at the Christmas tree lot, and Santa said—and you just kind of assumed. So I thought I'd help you out."

"By sleeping with me?" Rodney's face had gone bright red. John never had been any good at explaining himself. "Are you saying that was a pity fuck?"

"No!" John felt actually shocked that Rodney would suggest it. "You know it wasn't. Look, I didn't expect—but then you were just so— You have to believe me."

"I don't." Rodney's voice had turned icy. "Get out."

"Come on," John said desperately. "How are you going to get home? Just let me—"

"I wouldn't spend an hour in the car with you if you paid me. Oh, which reminds me. I quit."

He stormed out, leaving John to stare after him helplessly. Mechanically, he opened his overnight bag and started packing up his stuff. This really wasn't the way he'd imagined this ending up when he'd delivered that sparkly note from Santa.



The Christmas Rodney was twelve, his mother found a cocktail napkin in his father's overcoat, with a telephone number written in lipstick. There was the inevitable confrontation, the usual denials, much screaming, a pitcher of martinis throw in his father's face, the good china smashed to pieces, and the Christmas goose thrown in the trash. Rodney locked himself in his room, but even that hadn't been enough to block out the angry voices. You always do this. You ruin everything. I don't know why you have to get so hysterical about everything. It's nothing. Absolutely nothing. Rodney opened his window and crawled out onto the roof and stayed there for what felt like hours, shivering in the freezing cold.

That really hadn't been such a bad Christmas compared to this one.

Rodney huddled in the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the bathtub, waiting until the house was quiet, presuming that meant John and Brett had both gone. And then he lingered there some more, because when he came out, he was going to have to face Jeannie. A smug I knew you couldn't really get a boyfriend that hot on top of how stupidly heartbroken he felt over John was...well, maybe he could just stay here in the bathroom for the rest of his life.

Soft footfalls came up the stairs, making Rodney tense, and then there was a knock at the door. "Mer? Everyone's gone now. You know, if you want to come out." There was a pause, Jeannie waiting for an answer, but Rodney really didn't have anything to say right now. "Okay. Well. We'll be downstairs. You know, if you want to talk or anything."

He listened to her walk away.

Rodney glanced back over his shoulder at the bathtub. Okay, so trying to sleep there would turn him in a paralysis victim, and he doubted that Jeannie would agree to slide meals under the door. If he didn't want top off this disaster of a holiday with a hypoglycemic episode, he was going to have to come out eventually. He sighed and hauled himself to his feet.

He splashed some water on his face and stared at himself in the mirror. "This is why thirty-seven year olds aren't supposed to believe in Santa Claus," he told himself.

He emerged from the bathroom and trudged downstairs. This brought the family spilling into the hall to meet him. They all stood there awkwardly, watching him with big eyes, not exactly helping matters.

"Why don't you two go back out and ride the bike some more?" Jeannie gently suggested.

"Oh," Caleb said, getting the hint. "Yeah. That's a good—come on, Mads. Let's get your coat."

They bundled up. Madison gave Rodney one last sympathetic look before heading outside with her dad.

"All right, Mer." Jeannie started pushing him toward the kitchen. "Now you're going to tell me everything."

She got them both coffee, and they settled at the table.

"So spill it," she prompted.

Rodney mumbled an explanation: about the Christmas tree lot, and the messy haired Adonis who wasn't a handyman so much as the CEO of Rodney's company whom Rodney had just called a moron via voicemail, and the good idea for getting Jeannie off his back that had turned out to be pretty much the worst idea that Rodney had ever had.

Jeannie stared at him, a pinch between her eyebrows. "Mer, I never meant—I only want you to be happy." There wasn't a trace of smugness at all, only concern. This was possibly worse.

Rodney looked down at the table. "Yeah, that's why this—" Really sucks, but pride kept him from saying it out loud. "There for a moment, I honestly thought—well, you know what I thought. And he was just—playing some kind of mind game, I guess. I don't even know what that was."

"You really think he did all this just to get back at you for a rude message?"

"Yes!" Rodney snapped. "What else could it be?"

Jeannie hesitated, "I don't know. I just—I did really get the feeling that he liked you."

"Yes," Rodney said dryly, "because heads of multinational corporations are never accomplished liars."

"Yes," Jeannie countered, "and heads of a multinational corporations never get outraged phone calls. Of course, his first impulse would be to create an elaborate revenge scheme that involves spending Christmas with your family and having much-too-loud sex with you in your sister's guest bedroom. Ingenious. Machiavellian even."

Rodney glared. Jeannie glared back.

Finally, Rodney let out his breath. "Well, he's still a jerk, whatever his stupid reason was."

He took a big slurp of his coffee. Even this wasn't as comforting as it usually was.

Jeannie considered him curiously. "What about Brett? Why didn't I ever hear about him?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Because I wasn't so creepy that I wanted to talk about my love life with my thirteen year old sister?"

Jeannie made an impatient face at him.

"Fine!" he huffed. "He was the popular guy I was tutoring in physics, and I was the geek he didn't give the time of day to unless we were in bed together. It only lasted a few months. I never saw any point in mentioning it."

"Well, he seems interested now," Jeannie observed.

Rodney shrugged. He really couldn't think about that right at the moment.

Jeannie patted his hand. "Why don't you stay another night or two?"

"I have to get back to—" he started. Then realized: oh, yeah, he'd quit. There was no work to go back to. "Um. Okay. Thanks."

He took his coffee into the living room and slumped onto the sofa and planned to spend the rest of the day there, wallowing in his misery. He vaguely noted the door opening and closing, and then a few moments later, Madison tiptoed up to him.

"Uncle Rodney?" she said softly.

He cracked an eye open. "Yeah?"

She clambered up onto the sofa with him.

"Watch the gall bladder!" he squawked, as little elbows and knees caught him in the stomach.

She settled at last, curling up with him. He curved his arm around her and rested his chin on top of her head. At least Madison wasn't just pretending to like him.

"Um," Madison said in a small voice. "Does this mean John isn't going to be my uncle?"

A wave of emotion caught Rodney in the chest. It was ridiculous to feel like his heart had been torn out and stopped on, he told himself sternly. He'd known John a day. Oh, hell, who he was he kidding? He hadn't known John at all.

"I'm afraid you're stuck just with me," Rodney told Madison with a heavy sigh.

"You're still my favorite," Madison declared, hugging him fiercely.

Rodney hugged her back. "I'm glad someone feels that way."

Caleb came to join them, casting sympathetic looks at Rodney that seemed to mean, I'm here if you want to talk. Just the idea of it made Rodney feel exhausted.

"Hey," he said to Madison, "why don't we watch your movie?"

He'd rather sit through two hours of an angel getting his wings than have to talk about John Sheppard.

Rodney moped around Jeannie's house for several days, until finally he couldn't put off the inevitable any longer. Caleb volunteered to give him a ride home, and Rodney turned on the radio as soon as the car started up to stave off any awkward attempts at conversation.

An hour and one Pink Floyd marathon later, they pulled up in front of Rodney's apartment building.

"So, uh, you want me to come up, maybe hang out for a while?" Caleb asked, a concerned look on his face.

Rodney imagined his apartment, how quiet and empty it would feel after the holiday chaos at Jeannie's. In any other circumstances, that would have been such a relief he would have jumped out of the car and skipped up the front walk. Today, though, it just made him feel—he scowled as his treacherous brain supplied the word lonely. For a moment, he almost took Caleb up on his offer.

He let out his breath. "No. It's okay. I'm fine. Really." He forced a smile. "Thanks for the ride."

Caleb didn't look especially convinced, but he said, "Okay. Call us if you need anything. Or just to talk."

Rodney nodded and grabbed his bag out of the back seat and waved from the curb. He went inside, up in the elevator, unlocked his apartment door and...felt like he'd been punched in the gut by the sight of that stupid Christmas tree. He'd completely forgotten about it, and seeing it now only added insult to injury. He heaved a sigh and dropped his bag by the door and went down the hall to the linen closet for a sheet. He didn't have the energy to chuck the tree right at the moment, but at least he didn't have to look at it. That was something anyway. Once he'd finished covering it, he headed straight for bed, pulled the covers over his head, and decided that he'd come out again when he felt better. In a couple of years.

It was a fine plan, except for the part where his sulking kept getting interrupted by the answering machine.

First it was Jeannie, "Hey, Mer. Just calling to check on you. You don't have to call me back. I just wanted to—you know, okay, I take it back. You do have to call me. Just to let me know you're all right. Okay?"

Then there was Radek, "Rodney, there is rumor going around that you no longer work for Pegasus Labs. I can not believe this, because surely if such a thing had happened, you would have called your research partner." He let out a deeply put upon sigh. "Did I tell you not to leave that message? You never listen to me. Call me, so we can figure out how you can make amends and get back to work. I have no intention of losing out on a Nobel Prize because you are bad with people."

Worst of all were the messages from John. They all went something like this, "Come on, Rodney. I know you're there. Pick up the phone. Okay, okay. Then just listen. I'm an idiot, all right? I handled this all wrong. But I didn't do it because—the only thing I lied about was my name. The rest of it—just give me a chance, okay? I swear to God I'll make it up to you."

Rodney lost count of exactly how many times John called. Finally, he switched off the machine and unplugged the phone. He just couldn't listen to it anymore.

The next morning, he woke up to the doorbell ringing shrilly. He glanced blearily at his clock. It wasn't even eight o'clock yet, and he had nowhere he needed to be, and why couldn't people just leave him in peace to brood? He closed his eyes and ignored the bell and hoped the person would give up and go away. Instead, they started pounding on the door. Rodney let out an exasperated sigh, threw back the covers and stomped to the door, grumbling the whole way there.

There was only one person he could imagine being this persistent, and he threw the door open, declaring, "I don't care what you have to say or how good you are in bed—"

The Fed-Ex delivery guy was standing there. "Um." He blinked. "Here." He pushed a package at Rodney.

"Thanks," Rodney mumbled, careful not to meet the guy's eye as he signed for the package.

He closed the door, sat the box on the dining table and regarded it as warily as if it contained a bomb. He couldn't imagine what John would Fed-Ex to him, but he also couldn't think of anyone else who'd be sending him a package. Belatedly, it occurred to him to check the mailing label.

The return address read: B. Hall, 129 Kingston Avenue. Rodney sighed heavily. He so did not need any more complications right now. He tried to walk away and just ignore the thing, but his sense of curiosity just couldn't take it. He tore into the box. Inside was a letter and something wrapped in tissue paper. Rodney opened the envelope and read:

Dear Rodney,

I don't know exactly what happened the other day, but I could tell
it upset you, and I'm sorry. Maybe this isn't the best time. Probably it isn't.
But the thing is, I've thought about you for twenty years, and now that
I've run into you again...well, I just can't let it go, you know?

There's no reason for you to give me a second chance. I get that. I was a big,
stupid jerk to you back in college, and I've felt so bad about it. Really
wanted to make it up to you. Tell you how sorry I was. That I never
meant any of it. I know how lame it sounds to say it was me, not you...
but, well, that's the truth. I wasn't comfortable with being gay, and I
took it out on you, and that was really immature, and you didn't deserve
it. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

Anyway, it's like two decades late, but here's what I was planning to give
you that last Christmas, before you broke up with me and wouldn't talk to
me anymore. I just...wanted you to have it.

Merry Christmas,

Brett

 

Rodney unwrapped the tissue paper, and inside he found a college ring. He picked it up and squinted and Brett's name circled the blue gemstone. God. It was Brett's college ring. Then he noticed that there was an inscription on the inside of it: Better late than never.

He put it down and went into the kitchen for a beer. He didn't want to be charmed by anything Brett Hall did, but he was only human, no matter what anyone claimed to the contrary. Rodney let out yet another sigh and took his beer back to bed with him.

Two days later, he felt ready to rejoin the world at last. He plugged the phone back in and turned on the answering machine. He still wasn't in the mood to tackle getting rid of the tree, so he did his best to keep on ignoring it. Eventually, he'd need to look for new employment, but he wasn't up to that just yet, either. Instead, he took out his notebook to mull over his millennium problem. Just because he didn't have a job didn't mean he didn't have work to do, he consoled himself.

He settled at the dining table with a dozen newly sharpened number two pencils lined up in front of him. He flipped through the pages of equations, and somehow it all just reminded him of John. Why did a hot guy who understood Yang-Mills theory have to be a lying bastard? Life really sucked sometimes.

Rodney was just starting to consider giving up the whole stay-upright-the-whole-day plan when the phone rang. That was it, the last straw. He snatched up the receiver. "I don't want to talk to you, okay? That's what it means when a person doesn't answer their phone all four thousand times you call. So, just. Stop it. All right?"

"Um, Rodney?" a voice said hesitantly.

It wasn't John. It was Brett.

"Oh," Rodney said. "Um. Hey."

"Hey. Sorry to bother you."

"No, no." Rodney waved his hand, although of course Brett couldn't see that. "It's fine. Really."

"I just—um. I wondered if you'd gotten—"

"Yes, yes. It was very—" Rodney let out his breath. "You know what? College was a long time ago. Let's just let bygones be bygones."

"Really?" Brett's voice brightened. "That's so—thank you. Maybe, we could—" He cleared his throat. "I'd love to get together sometime."

"Well," Rodney said hesitantly. "Maybe sometime."

"Actually," Brett said, sounding sheepish. "I'm outside. In front of your building. You know, calling you on my cell phone."

Rodney moved over to the window, pulled the curtains back and peered out. Sure enough, there was Brett Hall standing on the sidewalk. He sighed.

"Look, now really isn't a good—"

"I know. I'm sorry," Brett hurried to assure him. "I just—listen, Rodney, I'm not asking for anything. Or expecting anything. I swear. I'd just like to get to know you again. I'd do anything to make it all up to you."

Rodney's gaze fell on the tree. "Well, if you really mean that, maybe there is something you could do for me..."

Half an hour later, the tree had been stripped bare and carted out to the curb for pick up. Brett hadn't stopped there, either. He'd busied himself putting away the Christmas decorations and even asked Rodney for a broom and dustpan to sweep up the remaining pine needles.

"You really don't have to do that," Rodney insisted, starting to feel uncomfortable as he watched Brett wield the broom, like maybe he was taking advantage a little bit.

Brett broke into a big smile. "Oh, I don't mind."

It was a nice smile actually, easy and friendly, Brett's eyes crinkling at the corners. Rodney had a sudden flash of what he'd found so appealing about him back in college. He was still good looking. Maybe there was a little silver mixed in with his blond hair now, but that just made him look less like an overgrown fraternity boy and more like an actual grownup. He still seemed to be in pretty good shape. Oh, maybe he'd gone a little soft around the middle, but who hadn't at their age?

John, Rodney's subconscious piped up. He lectured his subconscious sternly, Really not helping!

Brett finished sweeping and bagged up the errant pine needles. "I can throw this out if you want."

Rodney didn't have the energy to argue, so he just gave directions to the trash chute. Brett ducked out into the hall. The phone rang, and Rodney walked over to the machine. John's voice unfurled in the air. Rodney listened, getting more irritated with every word. He really was getting sick of this. It was time to purge John Sheppard from his thoughts once and for all.

Brett returned from his trash-dumping errand. He let himself back into the apartment and stood by the door, awkwardly shifting his weight from foot to foot.

"Well," he said at last, "I guess I should—"

"How would you like to go out with me tomorrow night?" Rodney blurted out.

Brett just blinked for a moment, and then he broke into a huge smile. "Do you like Italian?"

Rodney nodded. "Who doesn't, really?"

Brett bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet. "Great! I'll pick you up at seven." He hesitated a moment and then fumbled a kiss to Rodney's cheek. "You won't regret it."

As Rodney was closing the door behind him, he thought: I really hope you're right.

 

John tightened his grip on the phone. "And you know what else, Rodney? Your resignation isn't accepted. I've reviewed your research and given it the green light and a bump in funding. You have a contract with Pegasus Labs. So don't make me call in lawyers. I'd much rather take you out to dinner than take you to court." John scrubbed a hand over his hair. "So. Just. Call me, okay?

He hung up with a sigh. God, he was an idiot. He was trying to win Rodney over and just ended up yelling at him instead. Honestly, though, leaving four thousand phone messages without a single response could fray a person's patience. John kept trying to convince himself that he couldn't lose the first person who'd interested him in practically forever over something so stupid it should be the plot of a Lifetime TV movie. His faith, though, was starting to wear a little thin. Frankly, he blamed Santa for this whole mess.

The phone rang, and John knew it had to be Rodney. He really wasn't one to pass up having the last word. Maybe yelling at his answering machine had been a stroke of genius on John's part after all.

"Just don't hang up, okay?" John said quickly. "I know you're pissed off at me, but it's not what you think. I really can explain. Or—you know, at least I can make it up to you. So will you please, please let me see you?"

"Oh dear, Johnny. What have you done now?"

John could feel all the color drain out of his face. It was his mother. And just when he thought things couldn't get any worse.

"Um, Mom. I wasn't expecting—"

"Clearly," she said, with a hint of amusement that John really didn't appreciate. "Well, I was calling to remind you about the annual Opera Society charity event. It's tonight, as you should know, although I do realize your propensity to forget things you're trying to avoid. I was going to tell you that I have it on good authority that the Rosemont sisters will be there and Alicia Newman and several other eligible women, but it seems there's already a new person in your life." His mother's voice lilted upwards, inviting John to fill in the details.

His mother was always prying into his love life, and the thought flashed through John's head that it would serve her right if he actually told her something for once. Then somehow this notion took charge of his mouth. "His name is Rodney."

There was silence on the other end of the line for an uncomfortably long time. John had never gone out of his way to hide it from his family that he dated both men and women, but they'd never actually discussed it either. This was just how they did things, leaving all the big, important, potentially explosive things unsaid. John had no idea how his mother would react now that the truth was actually out there. After all, her one ambition in life was to have grandchildren.

At last she spoke, "And how long have you been seeing this Rodney?"

"Seeing" was something of an overstatement, but John answered anyway, "Couple of days."

"And you've already managed to make a mess of it? John, dear, how have I raised a son who is so smart at business and so abysmally stupid with people? I blame myself entirely. I should have taken you to the playground more often when you were a child, so you'd understand how human beings are supposed to behave with one another."

"Thanks a lot, Mother!"

"You're welcome, dear," she said sweetly. "Now, tell me this. Do you really like this man? Because it sounds as if you do."

The question made John no less tongue-tied now than it had when Jeannie had been grilling him on the subject.

"I'm going to interpret that stoic silence to mean yes. So what exactly are you doing to get him back?" she inquired.

This was so not what John was expecting her to say. "What?"

"Dear, however dreadfully you've mishandled things, you're still a Sheppard. We don't take defeat lightly. So stop moping around and go convince this Rodney that you're the man who truly appreciates him and can make him happy. In the end, that's what everyone wants."

John was still having trouble catching up. "So you're saying—"

"You and Rodney can adopt orphans from…wherever people are adopting orphans these days. I want grandchildren," she said, almost like a threat. "Wait. Rodney does like children, doesn't he?" John could practically hear his mother frowning.

"He pretends not to," John told her. "But he has an eight-year-old niece he's crazy about."

"Then I approve. Of course none of this means you're off the hook for the benefit tonight. You're father has put his foot down about going, and we've got the Sheppard name to uphold. You can be my escort. I'll see you at eight." She hung up with a cheery bye.

John heaved a sigh. He knew there was no point in arguing with his mother where upholding the Sheppard name was concerned.

That evening, he met his mother at the theater, and the benefit turned out to be just as stultifying as John had imagined. There were a couple of performances, which were okay, although honestly John was no connoisseur of opera. Afterwards, he worked the room, glad-handing politicians, charming society matrons, and chatting up executives of companies he might want to do business with in the future. All of this was as much part of his job as setting his company's strategic vision, driving new research initiatives and outmaneuvering competitors in the market place; it was just a hell of a lot more boring.

By the end of the evening, he was so restless he was practically twitching, pulling at his collar, seriously ready to ditch the tie. More than once, while he'd been plastering on an "I'm listening" look as some florid, half-drunk corporate wonk rattled on not particularly insightfully about green initiatives and the future of nanotechnology, John had imagined how much more fun all this would have been with Rodney at his side, whispering sarcastic asides in John's ear.

When John's mother was finally ready to go, she came to collect him. "See? That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Time of my life," he said in a deadpan.

His mother cut her eyes at him. "Sometimes, you'd think you had been raised by wolves."

Outside, it was just beginning to snow. John held out his arm to his mother, and they started down the marble steps. On the sidewalk was a man dressed in a Santa suit, standing by a kettle and ringing a bell, a holdover from Christmas. Maybe they continued to collect for charity until New Years?

John walked past, not really paying attention, but then something occurred to him. "Hold on just a sec, Mom."

"Johnny!" she hissed after him. "Those things aren't real charities. I saw it on Dateline."

The Santa looked up as John approached.

"It's you!" they said in unison.

Santa looked around. "Where's Rodney?"

"Avoiding me!" John told him hotly. "Also hating my guts. Thanks so much for that, by the way."

Santa looked taken aback. "But I was sure you two would hit it off—"

"We did. That's—well, that's kind of the problem." John sighed. "See, when you sent me over there with the sparkly note, he said something about me being his consolation prize—"

Santa shook his head sadly. "That one never had any faith."

"And then he asked me to pretend to be his boyfriend and—that didn't end so well. Let's just leave it at that."

"Oh dear, that's not at all how this was supposed to go. You're going to have to fix it," Santa told him. "A promise is a promise. My good name is on the line here."

John frowned. "What promise?"

"Never you mind that," Santa said. "The important thing is that it's not too late for you to make him understand that you're what he was expecting, not some consolation present." Santa sniffed indignantly. "As if I'd ever stoop to such a thing."

"What is that supposed to mean?" John demanded, bewildered.

"It means you have to go woo him back." When John didn't jump right to, Santa waved his arms. "Well, what are you waiting for? The Christmas season is almost over."

John wasn't sure why this was what spurred him to action, but maybe where Santa was concerned, it was best not to ask too many questions.

He hurried back over to his mother. "Come on, Mom. There's something I need to take care of."

"You're not rushing off to sign over the company to Kris Kringle, I hope?"

John shook his head. "Actually...I think he was trying to give me something."

After John dropped his mother off, he hurried home and spent half the night drawing up a strategic plan for Operation Woo Rodney. The brainstorming got off to something of a bumpy start. John sat there for who knew how long twirling his pen in his hand, staring at a blank piece of paper. He wasn't much of a wooer by nature, more of a let-them-come-to-you kind of guy. Even then, he rarely saw it coming. Trying to figure out how to actively pursue someone made him feel like a fumbling teenager. Finally, though, he'd come up with some ideas, borrowing heavily from movies and the kinds of things his old girlfriends used to hint around that they'd like.

When he got to the office the next day, he called up the florist and sent Rodney three dozen roses, an arrangement of wildflowers and a potted palm, because he had no idea what Rodney might like and he wanted to cover all the bases. Next, he went online and ordered a hamper the size of a Volkswagen filled with gourmet items from Dean and Deluca. If there was one thing John did know about Rodney, it was that he enjoyed food.

His assistant struck out trying to find a place that actually did singing telegrams. "I think those might have, you know, gone out in the 50s?" she said with a shrug.

At lunch, John went to Best Buy, and his luck was better there. He found the boxed set of Doctor Who, which he planned to deliver to Rodney himself. He was not at all above trying to bribe Rodney's inner geek.

The real question now was: how could he get Rodney to see him? He must have picked up the phone at least a dozen times, but always set it back down without calling. Rodney had made it clear that he wasn't going to answer. John wasn't sure if it would be any different if he just showed up at Rodney's apartment, but at least he'd actually be doing something. John always had preferred the direct approach.

An emergency with one of their subsidiaries kept him at the office later than he'd hoped. It was going on seven by the time he pulled into the parking lot outside Rodney's apartment. He grabbed the Doctor Who DVDs and started out of the car, only to freeze in his tracks. Coming out of the building was Rodney...with Brett Hall.

John scrambled back into the car and watched them head down the front walk. It's not necessarily a date, he insisted to himself. They could just be two guys who'd gone to college together and managed to patch things up over the holidays and were now going out in a perfectly platonic way to talk about old times. But then, Brett reached for Rodney's hand, and Rodney didn't pull away, and John's reassuring self-delusion fizzled. The two of them walked to the car hand-in-hand, and Brett planted a kiss on Rodney's mouth before unlocking the passenger door for him.

For the longest time, all John could do was sit there staring stupidly. He really couldn't believe that Rodney wasn't going to forgive him, but he was going to take back the guy who'd been a jerk to him in college. John felt as if someone had kicked him in the ribs, repeatedly, very hard, with steel-toed boots. Actually, that had happened to him a time or two back in his military days, and seeing Rodney with someone else might actually feel worse.

There was, of course, only one dignified thing to do in a situation like this. Wait until they were gone, and then go home and make his peace with the whole thing. Brett's car pulled out onto the street, and John put his own car in gear. At the exit of the parking lot, he needed to make a left to head home.

He made a right instead. Brett's car was still in sight in front of him. It wasn't stalking, he told himself. At least, he was pretty sure it didn't meet the legal definition of the term.

 

The restaurant was dark-paneled and dimly lit. Candles flickered on the tables, and music played softly in the background. Rodney glanced around, and the entire place was filled with couples. Clearly, it was known as a date restaurant. He squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.

Brett raised his wine glass. "To us."

Rodney tried to smile and didn't quite succeed. He downed half his wine. He still wasn't sure what he was doing here. He'd only suggested it because Sheppard's insufferable phone message had pissed him off. He'd regretted it later, and that morning had woken up resolved to call Brett and cancel. Then the flurry of floral activity had started up. Apparently, Rodney hadn't mentioned his pollen allergy to John. He wasn't sure his sinuses would ever be the same. Those barbequed peanuts from Dean and Deluca, on the other hand, those were pretty tasty… Not that that was the point! The point was that Rodney wasn't easy. He had his pride! He couldn't be won over by a jerk with some trinkets and a charming smile and some really hot sex.

Well, probably not anyway. Which was why he needed to start dating other people, pronto.

"So, Rodney." Brett smiled. "Tell me what you do. Tell me about your work."

"I'm a research fellow at Pegasus Labs. Was anyway. Maybe still am. Anyway, I'm in the middle of a very important project right now. It's interesting actually," Rodney warmed to the subject, explaining his research in the simplest terms possible.

Brett's attentive expression faltered after a few minutes, and before Rodney could even get to the part about how this work might earn him a Nobel Prize one day, it was clear that Brett wasn't listening. He was just waiting for Rodney to stop talking. It's not like he understands Yang-Mills theory, Rodney thought with a pang.

He let out his breath and said, "So what have you been doing since college?"

Brett puffed up proudly. "I've got my own heating and air conditioning business." He went on tell Rodney more than he'd ever wanted to know about compressors and duct work.

By the time he'd finished droning on, Rodney was so bored he'd actually gone numb. Memories from college were rushing back to him, like the time Brett had spent a solid hour describing his every move in an intramural lacrosse game he'd played in. Brett always had preferred to talk about himself, and back then, Rodney had been young and lonely and willing to put up with pretty much anything just to keep on having sex.

He threw back the rest of his wine, and the waiter circled over to refill his glass. Brett launched into the long, tedious tale of the early years of Hall HVAC, the struggle to make those cretins at the bank see how kick-ass his business plan was, the fierce battle against the other outfit in town, and Brett's ultimate victory, making him the king of heating and air conditioning in three counties.

Rodney started in on his second glass of wine, plastering on a fake smile. There were nights—okay, every night—when he woke up hard and aching, because he'd been dreaming about John's hands and John's mouth and John's— He figured the only way he was ever going to get over it was to have sex with someone else. Brett was here and transparently willing, and all Rodney had to do was survive the rest of the dinner. He consoled himself that when the food came maybe there'd be less talking.

They made their way through the salads and entrees, and when the waiter came to ask about dessert, Rodney declared desperately, "Oh God, no."

Brett insisted on paying for dinner, and they headed back to Rodney's place. Brett parked the car and walked Rodney to the door.

"So, um." Brett fidgeted, as if trying to figure out how to ask Rodney for a goodnight kiss.

You've got to get over John sometime, Rodney reminded himself.

"You want to come in?" Rodney asked before he could change his mind.

Brett's face lit up. "Yeah. Yeah. Sure. Of course."

They went up in the elevator, and Rodney unlocked the door. Brett followed him inside.

"Would you like—" Rodney glanced toward the kitchen. He thought he had a few beers left in the refrigerator, and maybe he could come up with a bottle of wine if he dug through the cabinets. Then he imagined spending more time talking about heat pumps and discharge lines. "So, do you want to have sex with me or not?"

"Oh my God, Rodney. I thought you'd never—" Suddenly Brett was all over him, kissing messily, tugging Rodney out of his coat and then the rest of his clothes.

"We're too old for sex on the floor," Rodney insisted and hustled Brett off to the bedroom.

"You have no idea how much I've thought about this," Brett said, staring at Rodney as he stripped off his own clothes.

He grabbed Rodney by the arm and practically piledrived him into the mattress. He landed on top of Rodney, running his hands over Rodney's body, kissing him frantically. It didn't take long for Rodney to be reminded that Brett wasn't exactly the most sensitive lover in the world. He pinched Rodney's nipples too hard and barely touched his cock at all. He didn't bother to ask Rodney what he wanted. He just rolled Rodney over onto his stomach, rooted around in his pants pocket for the lube and condoms he'd apparently brought with him, slicked up, and pushed inside.

Rodney was unhappily transported back twenty years, remembering how desperate he'd been to have someone touch him, and then how strangely lonely it had felt to have a guy on top of him sweating and grunting and fucking away, but without any sense of connection. He remembered so clearly wanting more and being certain he was never going to get it.

And then he did finally find what he wanted. With John.

He tried to force that thought away and concentrate on getting something out of the sex he was currently having. He was halfway hard, and he pushed his hips into the mattress, rubbing against the comforter. Occasionally, Brett managed to hit his prostate, purely by accident Rodney imagined, and he tried to focus on that spark of pleasure, let it build, let it—

Brett came with guttural cry and slumped heavily against Rodney's back. Rodney fisted his hands in his pillow and sighed with frustration. He waited for Brett to move, and waited some more, and finally had to say, "Need to breathe now."

Brett rolled off. He had the slightly dazed expression of a man who'd just had one hell of an orgasm, not that Rodney would know much about that right at the moment. He flopped over onto his back and glared impatiently at Brett.

"Oh, you didn't—" He frowned at Rodney's erection, as if he couldn't imagine how the seven whole minutes of sex they'd had wasn't completely fulfilling. Then his mouth curved into a lewd smile. "Get yourself off. I want to watch you."

Rodney looked to the ceiling. Do I have to do everything myself? He took hold of his cock, feeling disgruntled, and started to stroke. Brett stared at him, his beady eyes bright and interested, his mouth gaping open. It was hardly inspiring jerkoff material, and Rodney shut his eyes and tried to think of something, anything else. Pictures of John sprang instantly to mind, and this time he made no attempt to push them away. He let himself remember how John looked kissing Rodney's chest, the way his skin had felt sliding against Rodney's, how he'd smiled afterwards like Rodney was a revelation.

When Rodney came, he had to bite his lip to keep from saying John's name.

"Yeah, yeah," Brett said, with a self-satisfied expression, as if Rodney's orgasm had anything to do with him. "That was hot. You really got off on it."

He made a grab for Rodney, as if he was planning to stay for a while and maybe even thinking about cuddling. Rodney snaked out of his grasp, scrambled out of bed and started picking Brett's clothes up off the floor.

"I, uh—very early meeting in the morning. Very, very early." He shoved Brett's pants at him. "I wouldn't want to wake you up."

"Oh." Brett's face fell for a moment, and then he perked back up. "But we can do it again, right?"

He started to pull his clothes on without even waiting for an answer. Once he was dressed, Rodney walked him firmly to the door.

"I'll call you. Oh, hey, it's New Years Eve tomorrow, isn't it? We should definitely go out. A guy I work with is having a party. Should be a lot of fun," Brett said as Rodney nudged him out the door.

Rodney turned the lock. "Yeah. I really don't think so."

 

The executive staff meeting bright and early the next morning wasn't nearly the distraction John had hoped it would be. The members of his team reported in on year-end numbers and research updates and ideas for future acquisitions, and John couldn't pay attention to any of it. His mind kept flashing back to the night before, to sitting in his car, watching Rodney invite Brett Hall in after their date, waiting for nearly an hour, hoping Brett would come back out again, finally giving up and going home when it became clear he was staying the night.

John had even considered calling Jeannie and throwing himself on her mercy, begging her to help him figure out how to get Rodney back. But then, he had no reason to believe she'd take his side. He'd accepted her hospitality, all the while he was lying to her. Brett Hall, on the other hand, delivered food to old people.

"Uh, John?"

He blinked and realized that his CFO Sam Berman was watching him expectantly.

John shook his head. "Sorry. Say that again."

Sam looked surprised, but repeated himself nonetheless, "I was asking how you wanted to proceed on the Lattimore deal?"

John nodded and answered, and for a few minutes at least, he could think about something besides Rodney in bed with someone who wasn't him.

After the meeting, he headed back to his office and dug into more of the Pegasus Labs research summaries. He had less than a week to make his final decisions if he was going to get people back to work on schedule, and he needed to make some serious progress. He tried to tell himself that this was the reason he had no plans for New Year's Eve, not because he was a pathetic loser.

The company was closing early to give employees a head start on the celebrating, and John's assistant poked her head in at three to ask, "Do you need me to stay? I don't mind."

He smiled wryly at the mess on his desk. "Nobody can help me with this. Enjoy your holiday."

The office got gradually quieter as people cleared out. Around seven, the absolute stillness started to feel depressing, and John got up to go, taking a mountain of paperwork with him. Things weren't that much more cheerful at home, the place empty and just as quiet as the office had been. John called out for pizza and fished a beer out of the fridge and settled down at the dining room table for a long night of research reports.

 

The morning after the date from hell began all too early, not to mention unpleasantly, with the phone blaring insistently in Rodney's ear. He snatched it up, thinking that if it was Brett he really couldn't be held accountable for his actions. "This better be important."

"Good morning to you too, sunshine." It was Jeannie, which was only marginally less annoying.

Rodney sat up in bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "I hope you're calling me this early because someone is dead."

"It's a real mystery why no one thinks you're a people person," Jeannie told him cheerfully. "I heard you had a date last night."

"What?" Rodney said snippily. "Was there a press release or something?"

"Practically," Jeannie said. "Brett called me at 6:30 this morning to tell me all about it. So how'd it go? You know, from your perspective. Because he sounded ready to pick out rings."

Rodney snorted.

"Enthusiasm a little one-sided, I take it."

"Let's just say that the only ring involved is the one I'll be returning to him at the first opportunity. And before you say it, yes, yes, I know. I'm too picky. A regular menace when it comes to relationships. I'm going to die alone with only my three hundred cats to keep me company. Blah, blah, blah."

"Actually," Jeannie corrected him. "I was going to say that maybe the problem was that you were out on a date with the wrong person."

Rodney scowled. "Oh, fine! Take his side!"

He could almost hear Jeannie rolling her eyes. "Why won't you at least give John a chance, Meredith? You lied to me, and I forgave you."

"Very nice!" Rodney huffed.

"From what I saw, he really does care about you. And you like him. You know you do, Mer. So stop being so stubborn and call him."

"I can't do that! Then he'll—he'll win!"

"Oh my God, is this some stupid pride thing?" Jeannie demanded.

"It is not!"

"Is too!" she insisted. "You know you really are going to die alone if you're this idiotic."

"Thanks so very much!"

"Just ask yourself this, Meredith. Would you rather have a smart, good-looking guy who really likes you in your life or three hundred cats who will probably eat you after you're dead?"

Rodney sighed and hung up and went around the rest of the day thinking: Little sisters don't know anything.

Eventually, though, that comforting sense of superiority wore off, and other thoughts started to filter in. Like how John was the CEO of a multinational corporation, and he'd still spent two days helping Rodney with the Jeannie situation, however duplicitously he'd gone about it. And maybe Rodney didn't get to be all that self-righteous about John lying to him when he had been doing the same thing to his sister. And didn't it mean something that John just seemed to get him, better than any of his boyfriends ever had, Brett Hall most certainly included? Maybe Jeannie was right, not that he'd ever tell her that. Maybe Rodney wasn't so much pissed at John, as he just really didn't appreciate anyone being able to put one over on him. Geniuses were supposed to see it coming.

Then, too, cats were carnivores. He really didn't want to die alone with them.

Rodney paced around the kitchen as he worked through all these thoughts and finally lurched to a stop. "Oh God, this means I have to do something, doesn't it?"

He pondered his options. Maybe he should call John? No, no. He should go see him. There was a return address on the card that had come with the floral tribute, not that Rodney had kept it for that reason or anything. He'd just drive over there and—

Then he remembered. It was New Year's Eve. No doubt John had plans for the evening. Rodney glanced at the clock. It was already past seven. He dithered about what to do: wait until tomorrow, or settle for calling, or track John down at whatever party he'd gone to and have a When Harry Met Sally moment. Rodney was definitely ready for the rest of his life to begin pretty damned soon.

Finally, though, he decided on something slightly less cinematic. He wrote a note and stopped by the wine store for a bottle of champagne on his way to John's. If the flowers and food hamper were any indication, John should appreciate the gesture. He parked on the street and walked up the long sidewalk to the porch, his heart doing backflips in his chest. There's no point in freaking out, he lectured himself. He's probably not even here. And even if he is, it's not like anything is going to happen. You're only here to talk. Seriously, you're not that easy.

The house looked dark. Rodney rang the bell anyway, just because it seemed the thing to do. He waited a moment, and nothing. So he set down the bottle with the note and turned to go.

Then the door opened, and he stopped in his tracks.

"Rodney?"

He turned back around, and the words just flew out of his mouth, "Oh, God."

John had on a white dress shirt, open at the collar, with the sleeves rolled up, showing off his strong forearms. His trousers clung lovingly to his muscular thighs. His hair was mussed, and his pretty lips looked like he'd just licked them. Who was Rodney kidding? He was totally that easy.

"I, uh, didn't mean to bother you," he started to babble. "You're probably in the middle of something. I can come back later—"

John caught him by the arm. "You're saving me from paperwork. Come on in. Have a beer or something."

Rodney stepped inside and glanced around the foyer. There was wallpaper and antiques and a Persian rug. This really wasn't what he would have pictured.

"My mother sicced her designer on me," John explained.

"Oh," Rodney said, nodding. "That makes it make a lot more sense."

John laughed, and a little of the tension went out of Rodney's shoulders.

"I promised you beer," John said and led the way to the kitchen.

He grabbed two bottles out of the refrigerator and handed one over. Rodney took a sip to give himself something to do, and they just sort of stalled there, standing by the sink, drinking their beer. Rodney's palms were so sweaty he had to be careful that the beer didn't slide right out of his hand.

"So, uh." John looked no less nervous than Rodney felt. "You got my message."

Rodney nodded. All four thousand of them. "Thanks for the funding."

John raised his beer bottle. "Thanks for making my company a ton of money with your brilliance."

Rodney shrugged. "It's what I do."

John grinned. "I've missed your modesty."

Rodney was ready to take offense, but the expression in John's eyes was warm and teasing and affectionate. And oh. Just...oh.

He swallowed. "You know, it, uh, occurred to me kind of recently that you went to a lot of trouble pretending to be my—well, you know. Especially for someone in your position." He gave John an intent look. "Why'd you do it?"

"Well, at first, I just wanted to explain," John said, "you know, when I saw you at the Christmas tree lot. And then I wanted to make you happy. And then I just—" There was something hot and sharp in John's eyes.

God. John wanted him.

Rodney's mouth went dry. "I, uh—"

John looked down at the floor. "I guess you're back with your old boyfriend, huh? I, uh, saw you two together."

Rodney frowned. "Where?"

"I might have—" John cleared his throat. "Spent some time sitting in my car out front of your building. It was absolutely not stalking!"

"I'm pretty sure it was," Rodney said mildly. "But to answer your question: no. I'm not back together with my old boyfriend. He's cute enough and not hopelessly stupid, I suppose, but he doesn't appreciate me, and he never will."

"Then he sounds pretty stupid to me," John declared.

Rodney's mouth curved into a smile. He knew he'd been right to include that "has to appreciate me" rider in his wish to Santa. "All right," he told John. "You're forgiven. You can stop sucking up now. And definitely no more wildflowers. I had itchy eyes and a runny nose for days."

"What about the boxed set of Doctor Who I got for you?" John's eyes were bright with humor. "Should I take that back?"

"Not if you don't want to start the second fight in our admittedly brief relationship."

John laughed and reached for Rodney.

Rodney went, easily, because apparently that was just the kind of guy he was. John felt good, and he smelled good, and Rodney pressed his face against John's shoulder. There was nowhere else he wanted to be. Ever.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you the truth sooner," John said quietly, stroking his hands over Rodney's back. "I really wasn't trying to—"

Rodney nodded. "You just can't do it again, okay? I've waited a long time for you. So you're not allowed to suck."

John laughed and held him tighter. "I'll really try not to. You know, except in the good way."

Rodney groaned. "You did not just say that."

John pulled back, grinning.

"It's a good thing you're really pretty," Rodney told him.

John grinned harder and kissed him. "So, how do you want to spend New Year's Eve?"

"I'm thinking naked." Because, hey, Rodney liked being easy.

"I know I've said it before, but let me say it again. I like the way you think." John slung his arm across Rodney's shoulders and walked him to the stairs.

Something occurred to Rodney as they were heading up the steps. "You realize that—well, we kind of have Santa to thank for all of this."

"I guess we do," John said slowly.

They looked at each other.

"Hey, you know how couples have secrets that they never, ever share with anyone?" Rodney said. "I think this should be one of ours."

John nodded emphatically. "Another excellent idea."

He pulled Rodney into his bedroom, shut the door, and then proceeded to show Rodney that he had some pretty good ideas of his own.